The military threat posed by Islamic State

By Guy Dorrell, Defence Correspondent @GuyDorrellEsq

The appalling murder of British aid worker David Haines, in a video released on Saturday, together with the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have done much to quicken the pace at which World leaders have pledged to fight the growing threat of Islamic State (IS) militants.

In a conference held in Paris on Monday, 30 leaders signed up to the efforts coordinated by US Secretary of State John Kerry during his whirlwind, multi-State diplomatic tour. The question that remains unanswered is what can be done to combat IS?

The US has engaged IS militants with airstrikes, in support of the Peshmerga Kurdish militia, to re-take the Mosul Dam. Much rhetoric has been put out about what a threat to Western lives and values IS represents, as it seeks to establish a caliphate sweeping across the Middle East.

In reality, although IS have seized vast quantities of military assets, from handguns to a SCUD missile launcher, the threat is highly localised. It is so for a number of reasons; both sectarian and practical.

Not unbeatable

To deal with the practical first, there is no doubt that IS has become a formidable force, but this is quite different from being a formidable fighting force. Much of the territory taken across Syria and Iraq was taken with few shots being fired. The IS trademark of brutality and ferocity won during initial battles, and subsequent treatment of prisoners and civilians has made many military units that they have encountered in their advance just fade away, without putting up a fight.

Where they have met forces willing to stand their ground and fight, advances have faltered or been repelled. IS has not entered Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq because the Peshmerga and the PKK, the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Party, have held a buffer zone by military action. While the Peshmerga and PKK are skilled fighters, well drilled and battle-hardened through experience, they are not of the same degree of professionalism as is routinely found in US and Western European armies.

The huge quantities of weapons that IS have captured may also present a long term problem for them, and opportunity for opposing forces. Reports state, and images show that the militants are largely armed with the ubiquitous AKM assault rifle, relative of the AK47, or one of its variants. Surprising numbers of the images feature individual fighters holding M16 variants. The issue that the militants have to overcome with this profusion of weapons – since they also carry handguns and PK machine guns – is the mixed calibres of the weapons. M16 rifles are chambered for a standard NATO 5.56mm round and AKM-family weapons are commonly chambered for a 7.62mm round.

NATO chose to go over to the smaller calibre – and to sacrifice the out-and-out stopping power of the 7.62 bullet – because of the logistical difficulty that the larger round represented. The AKM’s official rate of fire is rated at 600 rounds per minute – though this is unachievable since it is magazine fed and typically requires each magazine to be changed after 30 rounds, while the PK machine gun is belt fed and can achieve at least 650 rounds per minute.

When the weight of ammunition is taken into consideration, 100 rounds of 7.62mm weighs roughly half a stone, a machine gunner without the discipline to measure their fire during a firefight could use three stones of ammunition each minute. A fighter with an AKM will expend half a stone of ammunition in just three magazines.

Prolonged firefights – and firefights are seldom the kind of quick, surgical procedure that is portrayed on television; they are often long, drawn-out shooting matches that last an hour or more, expose a weakness in logistics that over time IS will struggle to overcome.

Supply lines

The militants have captured a range of military vehicles, but their seemingly preferred option is a Toyota Landcruiser pick up. While these vehicles are mechanically reliable, running them across the kind of territory and distances that are commonly found in Syria and Iraq requires a logistics infrastructure with which IS is not yet equipped.

In any regular army, there are specialists devoted to service support including Petrol, Oil and Lubricants (POL). History records any number of campaigns where rapid advances where the kinetic – the fighting troops, outstrip the logistics; Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Hitler’s winter campaign on the Eastern Front, the Battle of the Bulge and even the second Gulf War, where fighting troops’ advance was deliberately reigned in to avoid stretch of the supply lines.

It is doubtful whether IS have devoted logisticians and it is difficult to think that any would-be Jihadi joins hoping to ensure that supplies of diesel run uninterrupted. To put the logistics effort into context, for every British frontline soldier deployed under Operation Herrick in Afghanistan since 2002, there were eight supporting military personnel. If we apply this ratio to IS, using the CIA’s latest estimate of militants, of the 31,000 (the highest number predicted), in excess of 27,000 of these would be devoted to support and service support. This clearly is not the case.

Weapons systems

Another compelling case for believing that IS offer no substantial military threat to the West is the manner of their tactics. Despite having captured some sophisticated weapon systems, including a SCUD missile launcher, their most featured and feared weapon is the knife; Islamic State is a determinedly low-tech fighting force. Partly this is due to PR reasons – the thought of being blown up by a SCUD missile is too esoteric to instil fear in most people – and partly it is practical; SCUD launchers require coordination, tasking and aiming that takes roughly 90 minutes to complete. This is not a task that an everyday person, or even an ordinary soldier could complete successfully.

The Command and Control of Islamic State will likely prove its Achilles heel. During the second Gulf War, one officer called Western Iraq a “special forces playground”. Some sources are already referring to the same areas of Iraq and portions of Syria where IS are active in similar terms, though as a psychopaths playground. It is notable that in the assaults on towns and villages, in their propaganda videos and particularly in the videos of executions, IS make no attempt to justify their actions through theology. An unquantifiable proportion of their fighters are there just to fight. This, of course, makes them difficult to control and to channel into peacetime activities if the Caliphate that IS wishes to establish is successful.

Degrading capabilities

President Obama has already been careful to state that coalition military action will try to ‘degrade’ IS capabilities – the Pentagon will have worked out that the chances of factional infighting leading to a split or implosion are far more likely than a military victory over IS. In this respect, IS seems likely to follow the path of al-Qaeda in North Africa where a bitter dispute over the submission of expense spreadsheets led to terrorist leader Moktar Belmoktar splitting away to form his own group, directly challenging al-Qaeda’s expansion in the region.

Sectarian reasons give the West no cause to fear IS military action against it. IS forces are Sunni and are engaged in the establishment of a Caliphate, with Sharia law as its system of justice, across the Middle East. Iraq is a majority Shia state with upward of 60 per cent of the population being Shias. Saudi Prince Bandar, as close personal friend of President George W Bush, is quoted by former Head of MI6 Richard Dearlove as having told him, “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’.” With over 100 million Shias in the region, IS has a great deal to do to establish their Caliphate. With only 31,000 fighters at present, dominating the ground that they have taken and continue to take is unlikely.

Ben Griffin tweeted his view on 22 August, “Such movements have risen and fallen over time. They pose no substantive, let alone existential, threat to the west” and he should know; he served in Iraq as a soldier in the SAS and is now a campaigner for Veterans For Peace.

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